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Definition: Daedalus from Philip's Encyclopedia

In Greek mythology, a masterly architect and sculptor. He constructed the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. When denied permission to leave the island, he made wings of wax and feathers to escape with his son Icarus.

Summary Article: Daedalus (“Ingenious”) from Dictionary of Classical Mythology

A brilliant inventor and master-craftsman. He was an Athenian, either the grandson or great-grandson of King ERECHTHEUS, and his father was appropriately named as either Eupalamus, “Skilful”, or Metion, “Knowledgeable”. Daedalus was forced to leave Athens after murdering his nephew, PERDIX, and went to the court of MINOS, king of Crete. When Pasiphae lusted for the bull that Poseidon sent from the sea, Daedalus built for her the hollow wooden cow, realistically covered with hide, inside which Pasiphae crouched so that the bull might couple with her. When she gave birth to the monstrous MINOTAUR, a male child with the head of a bull (Fig. 110), Minos commissioned Daedalus to build the Labyrinth, a vast underground maze in which the creature could be shut away for ever.

The Minotaur was fed on human flesh, and Minos claimed from Athens, in recompense for the death of his son Androgeos, a tribute (either annually or every nine years) of seven youths and seven girls, who were sent into the Labyrinth to feed the monster. This maze had been so cleverly devised by Daedalus that anyone going in would be quite unable to find the way out again – until, that is, Daedalus himself took a hand in the matter. When the Athenian hero THESEUS came as one of the seven sacrificial youths, but with the intention of killing the Minotaur and putting an end to this ghastly tribute, Minos’ daughter ARIADNE fell in love with him. For her sake Daedalus provided a clew, a ball of thread that would show Theseus the way back out of the Labyrinth. Theseus duly killed the Minotaur (Fig. 111) and made his escape by following the thread, then left Crete, taking Ariadne with him.

Minos was so angered by Daedalus’ treachery that he imprisoned him in the Labyrinth, together with his little son ICARUS, born to him from one of the palace slave girls; but Pasiphae released them, and the clever Daedalus, never at a loss, fashioned wings of wax and feathers with which they could fly to freedom. Sadly, despite warnings from his father, Icarus flew so near the sun that the wax of his wings melted in the heat, and he fell to his death in the sea below. Daedalus escaped to Sicily and took refuge at the court of Cocalus, king of Camicus. Minos, still bent on revenge, searched for him everywhere, taking with him a spiral seashell and promising a great reward to anyone who could pass a thread through it. He believed (and quite rightly) that no one but the clever Daedalus would be able to solve the problem, as indeed he did when Minos brought the shell to Camicus. Daedalus (perhaps remembering Theseus’ escape from the Labyrinth) bored a hole at the point of the shell, then tied a thread to an ant and induced it to pass through the spiral. Cocalus gave the threaded shell to Minos, who at once demanded that he surrender Daedalus to him. The king promised to do so, but that night Minos was killed by Cocalus’ daughters while in his bath. They had grown so fond of Daedalus, delighting in their clever guest's artistic skill, that they did not want to lose him, so they scalded Minos to death with boiling water (some say pitch), flooding it through a system of pipes installed by Daedalus himself.

Daedalus’ name became synonymous with ingenuity and fine craftsmanship. The ancients saw evidence of his work in many remarkable buildings and art works throughout the Greek world, and even in Egypt. He is mentioned first by Homer (Iliad 18.590–2) as the maker of a dancing-floor for Ariadne at Knossos. Virgil (Aeneid 6.14–33) says that he built Apollo's great temple at Cumae, adorning it with scenes depicting the birth and death of the Minotaur. “And you too, Icarus,” adds Virgil, “would have had a great part in this splendid work, but for Daedalus’ grief. Twice he tried to shape your fall in gold, and twice his hands, a father's hands, dropped helpless.”

Daedalus as symbol of the creative artist has remained important into the twentieth century, as when James Joyce chose the name Stephen Dedalus for his hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and for one of his three chief characters in Ulysses (1922), both to a large extent modelled on Joyce himself. The earlier novel ends with an invocation to Daedalus: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”

[Apollodorus 3.15.8, Epitome 1.8–15; Diodorus Siculus 1.61, 1.97.5–6, 4.30.1, 4.76.1–79.2; Pausanias 1.21.4, 1.27.1, 2.4.5, 7.4.4–7, 8.35.2, 8.53.8, 9.11.4–5, 9.39.8, 9.40.3–4; Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.152–262.]

Text © Jennifer R. March 2014, illustrations © Neil Barrett 2014

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